With the fate of East London’s oldest halal restaurant hanging in the balance, a desperate plea has been made on Twitter.
‘Not one to do this,’ @mehnazmeh wrote, ‘but my dad owns the oldest Indian restaurant in East London and struggles with customers so please show some love love!If you’re in Aldgate come and have a curry I’m biased but it’s the best!
Mehnaz Mahaboob has included parallel images of his father and grandfather sitting in the restaurant over the decades. The tweet went viral, generating over 40,000 interactions on Twitter, and for a glorious few weeks the Halal restaurant was packed.
“It really worked. There were people waiting outside the door because of the tweet. We had to turn people away for dinner, which we’ve never had before,” said Mahaboob Narangoli, Mehnaz’s father and current owner of the Halal restaurant, which serves a wide variety of South Asian dishes, with the meat found in its curries and biryanis slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law.
The brief boom brought in enough to keep the business afloat during a second pandemic lockdown in Britain, when the restaurant had to close again for seven months, according to Mahaboob.
The Halal restaurant opened in 1939 to meet the needs of Muslims in the shipping industry. In the decades since, the restaurant has changed with East London and now relies on the crowds of bankers, shipping agents and insurance workers who work in the City of London. But the pandemic reduced much of that traffic, forcing the restaurant to rely on delivery and take-out orders as London’s normally crowded streets fell silent.
“We have many customers who came here even before my father took over. We just had someone today who’s been eating here since the 1960s,” Mahaboob said.
The restaurant was originally part of the Hostel for Indian Seamen in London. At that time, the nearby Saint Katherine’s Docks, named after the church demolished in 1825 that once stood on the site, was part of London Docks. The area attracted many South Asians who worked as lascars aboard various ships.
In 1932 the Indian National Congress had estimated that there were just over 7,000 South Asians living in Britain, many of whom were linked to the shipping industry.
The docks and the Tower of London, which is a five-minute walk away, were both heavily damaged during World War II. Even today, the sparse tables of the Halal Restaurant seem to recall the maritime heritage of the establishment. A photo of the restaurant’s all-wooden interior in the 1970s could easily be mistaken for a dining hall on a ship.
Mahaboob’s father, Usman Abubakar, was no stranger to the sea. Abubakar first came to London as a member of the Merchant Navy. In 1970 he started working as a waiter in a Halal restaurant. In 1978, Abubakar was the owner, having purchased the restaurant from its second owner.
The 1970s may have been a turbulent time in Britain with labor struggles and the currency crisis of 1976 – but it was an important decade for the history of Indian cuisine in the country and, in the end, the South Asian cuisine had become a British staple.
In 1971, during a stormy night in Glasgow, Scotland, a British Bangladeshi chef named Ali Ahmed Aslam improvised the “Chicken tikka masala”, a dish that can now be found on menus around the world. whole, including the Halal restaurant. Within five years, Britain had more than 2,000 ‘Indian’ restaurants – the majority actually run by Bangladeshis – some say the number would rise to 3,000 by the end of the decade.
The building that houses the Halal restaurant dates from the 17th century and has witnessed the changing religious demographics of east London. Close to Brick Lane, these changes are perhaps best expressed in the fate of a single building. A church opened by French Huguenots in the 18th century became a synagogue in the late 19th century and, in 1978, a mosque. The Brick Lane Mosque took over the space to serve the growing Bangladeshi community as many Jewish families moved to the suburbs.
These cultural influences are evident on Brick Lane where a person can find everything from kosher bagel sandwiches to halal tomahawk steaks. And it’s not uncommon to find Muslim worshipers during Ramadan lining up for “corn-beef beigels” outside the neighborhood’s 24-hour Jewish bakeries.
Tower Hamlets, the area of East London where the Halal restaurant is now located, is home to more than 40 Islamic institutions and dozens of Halal restaurants. Nearby is the East London Mosque, founded in 1985 and now one of the largest in Europe, seating 7,000 worshippers.
Although estimates vary, there are between 8,000 and 12,000 Indian restaurants in Britain today, the majority of them being halal. London itself is home to a diverse range of Halal South Asian restaurants. Dishoom, a small restaurant chain that opened in 2010, pays homage to Parsi or (Zoroastrian) cafes, now endangered across India.
Meanwhile, Brigadiers, which opened in 2018, is inspired by Indian military messes.
A number of new tourism-oriented hotels have sprung up near the Halal restaurant due to its proximity to the Tower of London. That added a few extra evening dinners, Mahaboob said. East London’s seedy history has even become an unlikely tourist attraction.
The tours offer visits to sites associated with the Kray brothers, the twin brothers and the gangsters of east London, both played by Tom Hardy in the 2015 film Legend. Another tour focuses on another famous criminal: Jack the Ripper. This case was investigated in part by officers from the Leman Street Police Station, which opened in 1830. During its heyday in the 20th century, many station “bobbies” Leman Street filled the Halal restaurant until the station closed in 1995.
The area’s edgy history and relatively low rents have attracted a growing hipster scene. A cafe near the restaurant does a thriving business and offers CBD-enhanced coffee. Although hipster culture in the region is a relatively recent phenomenon, its demographics may change again. Mahaboob said the number of customers from East Asian countries is slowly increasing.
Social media campaign or not, the pandemic has taken a dent in business and there are stores nearby that have yet to reopen. Next door, a hair salon named Ahmed Scissorhands, a reference to the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, remains closed. For a restaurant that survived the Blitz and labor uproar of the 1970s, Mahaboob is only cautiously optimistic about the restaurant’s long-term viability.
“Let’s see if things start to improve soon. We really hope that the workers will start working again in the city (of London); that’s when things can really change,” Mahaboob said. – Religious News Service/AP